As taboo-busting show Sex Education returns to our screens, its star Emma Mackey talks to Stylist about sudden stardom, the importance of real-world sex education, and sharp learning curves.
Heavy black eyeliner. Pink box-dyed hair. A silver nose ring. A leather jacket. These are the markers of the quintessential Cool Girl. So when we meet Maeve Wiley in episode one of Sex Education, we think we know exactly what we’re in for.
In fact, everything from the slamming of lockers to the rucksacks slung over varsity jackets feels familiar, scenes plucked straight from the greatest of John Hughes’ high school stories. There’s the same joy, the same knowing humour, but things are not what they seem. The handsome jock? Cracking under pressure and thinking about self-harm. The popular mean girl? Struggling to cope with a critically ill parent. The vicious bully? Drowning in a sea of toxic masculinity and questions about his own sexuality. In Sex Education, as in life, people don’t fit into neat little boxes.
The show was a creeping hit when it launched in January 2019, whispers of its brilliance whizzing around the Stylist office until it was all anyone wanted to talk about. Despite its focus on teenagehood, Sex Education captured a universal desire for honesty about the messiness of sex, growing up and the double standards around female pleasure – for women everywhere, it was a breath of fresh air.
And when Stylist comes to meet breakout star Emma Mackey as she wraps filming on season two, it quickly becomes clear that despite her natural grace and air of French-girl cool – she was raised in the Loire Valley by a French father and an English mother – she is just as complex, as conflicted, as much of a work in progress as the rest of us. It’s this that makes her the perfect Maeve, a young woman who seems self-assured – she never shies away from calling out sexism or delivering a cutting barb – and yet shows her vulnerability in the quiver of a lip or a backwards glance.
Whirlwind doesn’t begin to describe Mackey’s life right now. At the beginning of 2019, though, she was still just Emma. Fresh out of university and staying with friends in London, she’d spent most of the previous year nannying and going to weekly acting classes while she applied to drama school. She didn’t get in, but she did get an agent, and six months later she was called in to read for a new Netflix drama.
By February, she was known as Maeve to people in 190 different countries – just a month after Sex Education’s release, Mackey’s face had graced more than 40 million screens around the world. Her Instagram followers ticked up to 1.9 million. For a 23-year-old, it was a hell of a lot to take in.
“Everything moved so fast, I still haven’t quite gotten my head round it,” she tells Stylist. “But the fact that I’m in a group of people who adore and support each other really helps.” Her cast mates include Asa Butterfield (“my genuine, real-life friend”) and the brilliant Gillian Anderson (“truly incredible”) as well as a slew of new faces playing refreshingly relatable characters.
Refreshing, too, is the show’s considered approach to sex behind the scenes. It’s not lost on me that Mackey must be one of a handful of actors who have only ever known what it’s like to have an intimacy coordinator on set with the sole purpose of making sure actors are comfortable and happy during intimate scenes, rather than being left to navigate a frankly terrifying experience alone.
Although she’s already being snapped up for big-budget films, including Kenneth Branagh’s Death On The Nile, the fact that her first acting job was in a post-#MeToo world brings home just how new to the game Mackey is.
Sex Education feels revolutionary in its depiction of sex and relationships. Why is that level of honesty important?
In season two, we explore everything from pansexuality to asexuality to female pleasure and masturbation – things we don’t talk about enough. And that’s the whole point of this job, of creative industries, to subvert those taboos. It’s not like, because we’re in a show about sex, all of us [actors] are 100% super comfortable with it, we talk about sex every day, we love sex. But it’s a vector for starting those conversations.
A mum came up to me in a restaurant the other day, she was so wholesome and lovely, and she said, “I’m just out for dinner with my boys and I wanted to let you know that I always pop Sex Education on for them because it does all the work for me. As a mum of two boys, honestly, your show has completely changed the way we talk about sex.” She was really thankful, and it was nice to hear there’s a practical element to it.
Do you think that’s indicative of a gap in our real-world sex education?
Well, I had one sex education lesson at school when I was 12 and it was literally like a biology class, all anatomy and reproductive organs. So for me and a lot of my peers the real education came from discussion with friends over time. And through the medium of photography and art.
For people growing up now, there’s a big social media movement around consent. There’s a photographer called Charlotte Abramow who I follow and she’s done a lot to put feminism and sexual consent more into the mainstream – especially in France, where it hasn’t really been broached much. I also hear a lot of musicians talking about female pleasure in their songs, which is cool. But really the question is, why are we having to look in these places? Why are we having to turn to popular culture to educate ourselves about how we function as human beings, about what is acceptable and what isn’t?
What do you think needs to change?
I think it’s an education problem, it should be instilled at an early age. Sex is a very personal and intimate thing, but it’s also omnipresent. We need to look after people, and kids in our society need to be taught about sex in a way that teaches them to respect consent first. The way it was when I was at school was so sterile and clinical and scary – there’s no real connection or emotion, which almost leads to people forgetting their partners are thinking, feeling humans.
It’s almost as if sex is a one-way thing. Something Prince Andrew said in his BBC interview comes to mind: “If you’re a man, it is a positive act to have sex with somebody.”
It makes my skin crawl. These men – men like him – are part of a generation who have inherited archaic ways of being and thinking that have always been associated with the male instinct. The idea that male sexuality is something very animalistic, that it’s out of their control. But that’s not an excuse any more. We’re not animals! We can talk and feel and have emotions and express ourselves. Come on, people.
Maeve is such a brilliantly complex character. What was it like getting to dig deeper into her back story?
Filming season two there was a real nervous buzz, we were all wondering if the quality would be as good, if we could keep up the excitement of season one. But I was more confident and it definitely felt like the writers had incorporated me into the character a bit more, it felt really familiar. Her lip bites, her smiles, those idiosyncrasies which were mine are now hers. And this time around we find out so much more about Maeve, it gets quite dark but there was so much to get my teeth into.
How does Sex Education measure up to the shows you watched when you were younger?
I was very sheltered growing up, I was watching The Worst Witch and Tracy Beaker until I was like 15. I did secretly watch Skins when I was a bit older, but I never told my parents. It was scandalous. I was like, is this what it’s like in the UK? They’re taking drugs!
Did filming take you back to moments in your own teenage years?
All the stuff to do with coming of age, the awkwardness and the fear and the silliness and the love – those bits I can relate to. But the world that Sex Education exists within is very different to mine. Sex wasn’t something I was interested in at school or thinking about till much later [laughs]. I grew up in a very small town, it was very conservative. I went to a Catholic school, so it all felt quite protective, like a little bubble. It wasn’t until I left that I started making my own mind up about things and having my own opinions.
Why did you leave France?
When I was seven I said, “As soon as I’m 18 I’m moving to university in the UK.” But I didn’t realise how much of a trampoline uni would be for me. If I’d stayed in my town I would’ve been such a different person. I’m so thankful I was able to come to the UK and broaden my mind. Leeds University was a big old culture shock – from this tiny place in France to a big industrial northern town with loads of people from all around the world. It was so exciting, and I absolutely needed it.
That’s a big leap. What was driving you?
I think that when you have two or more cultures, it feels like you’re always asked to choose between them – you’re either French or you’re British. And I felt a pull towards the UK and to be British because that’s where a lot of great theatre and music is. I weirdly kind of rejected France for most of my life; I was like, they don’t get me, they don’t get my sense of humour. But now I’ve been in the UK for a few years I’m like, hmm, actually now I’m going to get a fringe and go to Paris as much as I can [laughs].
What was it like being raised by parents from different backgrounds?
They have completely different approaches to life and to education, which can be brilliant because it feeds you, it’s enriching, and I think having more than one culture is a blessing. But there’s also a lot of push and pull. And for quite a lot of your life you’re going to think, where do I belong? Where do I want to be? Who do I want to be? I’m only now realising at 23 that I’m allowed to be both, that I don’t have to choose which football team I support in the World Cup.
I have a mixed background too, and it does feel like a particularly confusing time to be dual heritage.
Absolutely. I’ve never had a French passport in my life – I’ve got dual nationality but always had a British one because that’s the choice my family made. But now I’m applying for my French passport for the first time. And I’m thinking of moving back, which I never thought I’d do. It’s weird. France is by no means better than the UK, politically speaking – nowhere is perfect – but I do have a sense of feeling a bit displaced right now.
What did you get from working on Sex Education?
Relief. Relief that sex isn’t always glossy and sensationalised. It was like, oh thank god. Also, I loved seeing female empowerment on screen, the way the girls in the show support each other. A couple of those scenes really got to me though because I don’t think I’ve really experienced that much in my life, or put sisterhood on the pedestal it deserves to be on – that experience of being bolstered by women as opposed to competitive or thinking, ‘Oh they’re doing so much better than me’.
Do you think comparison is a big issue for women now?
Yes. There’s such pressure. As much as doing this job is lovely, you’re supposed to be a good role model, be funny, be polite, have good skin. I don’t use social media much, I only have Instagram, but even then I don’t look at comments or message requests, it’s just my way of dealing with it. I posted a selfie for the first time in forever after I went to a Vanity Fair party recently. I was proud of myself because I decided to go on my own as a social experiment, and I’d done my own make-up too – it was the first time I’d felt confident in myself for a while. But then I felt guilty for posting it. I thought, why am I doing this? It’s just narcissism, isn’t it?
We are so hard on ourselves, but it’s about striking that balance and celebrating yourself when you deserve it, too.
Season two of Sex Education is on Netflix from 17 January
Photography: Florence Mann
Fashion: Laëtitia Mannessier
Hair: Akiko Kawasaki